Although Tony Abbott survived the February leadership spill his hold on the prime ministership remains incredibly weak. The events, described by Abbott as a “near death experience”, expressed deep concerns in the collapse of support for the government. Abbott’s backers in the business community now concede that he’s been “given, at best, a stay of execution”.
Opinion polls highlight Abbott’s unpopularity. According to a March Fairfax/Ipsos poll, 39% of voters want to see Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull replace Abbott as Prime Minister. Polling also suggests that, if an election was held now, the Liberals, under Turnbull’s leadership, would win by a narrow margin. When compared to Abbott many see Turnbull as a sort of lesser-evil. But would Turnbull be any different from Abbott?
While Turnbull might seem softer, and have a more sophisticated style than Abbott, he has the same hardline approach to economics. Like Abbott, Turnbull would facilitate the same process whereby ordinary people would be forced to pay for a crisis they didn’t create. His privileged background gives us an insight into his politics.
Malcolm Turnbull established himself as one of the richest people in Australia, with an estimated personal wealth of $186 million, long before he was elected to parliament in 2004. A barrister by profession, he left the bar in 1983 to become general counsel for Australia’s richest man, Kerry Packer, who was facing allegations of corruption at the Costigan Commission.
Turnbull ensured that Packer, who was linked to tax evasion and drug trafficking, escaped without charge. In 1987, when he established Whitlam Turnbull & Co Ltd, an investment bank in partnership with Neville Wran, a former Labor Premier of New South Wales, and Nicholas Whitlam, the son of former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, Packer, as a token of gratitude, chipped in $25 million in start-up costs.
In the 1990s, Turnbull served as chairman of various multinational companies, including Australia’s largest internet provider OzEmail, which made Turnbull a profit of $60 million; Axion Forest Resources, a logging company that cleared forests in the Solomon Islands; and Goldman Sachs, which was active in various privatisation programs being carried out by the then Howard Government.
In parliament, Turnbull has continued to champion the cause of big business. Appointed Environment Minister in the dying days of the Howard Government, Turnbull approved of a controversial application by Gunns Limited to build a $1.7 billion pulp mill in Tasmania. As leader of the Liberal Party from 2008-09, Turnbull argued that sweeping cuts be made in response to the global financial crisis.
As Communications Minister under Abbott, Turnbull has overseen drastic cuts to the public broadcasters, ABC and SBS. Turnbull announced that $254 million would be ripped out of the ABC. A further $25.2 million would be cut from SBS. Likely to cost 600 jobs over the next five years, Turnbull’s cuts will reduce the threat posed by the public broadcasters to the profits of private operators such the Murdoch-owned News Limited. He has also flagged the potential privatisation of Australia Post.
As noted by the Financial Review in February, the push for leadership change was led by the “Liberal Party base (of) business and the big donors”. It has not been a “push to install an alternative government but to install a leader who will stop Labor regaining government”. With economic crisis worsening, and much of the Abbott government’s first budget stalled in the Senate, big business is concerned that the Liberals are “losing the battle over the budget”. Turnbull’s extensive links to big business makes him Abbott’s ideal replacement.
Far from being a lesser-evil or a softer touch, a Turnbull led Liberal Party would be more like an iron fist in a velvet glove. Regardless of who leads the major parties, both the Liberals and Labor act as representatives of big business. The challenge ahead is to break from these parties and build a political alternative based on the interests of ordinary people.
By Conor Flynn